Talks on Open Notebook Science – some initial thoughts
So I have given three talks in ten days or so, one at the CanSAS meeting at NIST, one at Drexel University and one at MIT last night. Jean-Claude Bradley was kind enough to help me record the talk at Drexel as a screencast and you can see this in various formats here. He has also made some comments on the talk on the UsefulChem Blog and Scientific Blogging site.
The talks at Drexel and MIT were interesting. I was expecting the focus of questions to be more on the issues of being open, the risks and benefits, and problems. Actually the focus of questions was on the technicalities and in particular people wanting to get under the hood and play with the underlying data. Several of the questions I was asked could be translated as ‘do you have an API?’. The answer to this is at the moment no, but we know it is a direction we need to go in.
We have two crucial things we need to address at the moment: the first is the issue of automating some of the posting. We believe this needs to be achieved through an application or script that sits outside the blog itself and that it can be linked to the process of actually labelling the stuff we make. The second issue is that of an API or web service that allows people to get at the underlying data in an automated fashion. This will be useful for us as we move towards doing analysis of our data as well. Jean-Claude said he was also looking at how to automate processes so clearly this is the next big step forward.
Another question raised at MIT was how you could retro-fit our approach into an existing blog or wiki engine. The key issues here are templates (which is next on my list to describe here in detail) which would probably require some sort of plugin. The other issue is the metadata. Our blog engine goes one step beyond tagging by providing keys with values. Presumably this could be coded into a conventional engine using RDF or microformats – perhaps we should be doing this our Blog in any case?
Incidentally a point I made in both talks, partly in response to the question ‘does anyone really look at it’, is that in many cases it is your own access you are enabling. Making it open means you can always get at your own data, which is a surprisingly helpful thing.
The CanSAS meeting was also interesting. This is traditionally a meeting where Small Angle Scattering instrument scientists, the people who maintain and support these instruments at large scale neutron and X-ray facilities, fail to agree on a standard data format. I wanted to make two points, one was the general point that making data available was a good thing, and secondly that making the instrument data available without a detailed description of the sample was pretty useless. However against all precedent they not only agreed a data format but it is also a flexible XML format allowing different tags for different ‘dialects’. So I can insert a tag into the data file that will point to our lab book, which is what I wanted.